Photo credit: Madrasa
Roughly 95% of Jewish citizens of Israel do not know how to communicate in Arabic, even though Arabic is the native language of 22% of the population in Israel. The lack of a shared language is a clear barrier for building a shared society. In response, Madrasa is a mission to make learning Arabic easy, and the new moral standard for all Israelis. As Madrasa’s co-founder and R&D director Gilad Sevitt sees it, increasing the presence of the Arabic language is crucial for connecting people across social barriers.
Madrasa is a non-profit organization that provides free colloquial Arabic lessons online and organizes in-person teaching for thousands of people across the state. On its website, students can find informative, accessible videos which start at the most basic level. By removing the barriers to learning Arabic, Madrasa hopes to elevate the use of Arabic in every sector of life, even if students only learn a few key phrases.
Gilad emphasizes that language is so much more than just words; Jewish citizens of Israel making the effort to learn Arabic is part of breaking down the harmful mentality of being separate from our neighbors, which underlies much of the conflict. He likes to quote Nelson Mandela:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.
The underlying goal of providing widespread access to learning Arabic is in part why Madrasa has focused on maintaining a deliberately inclusive approach to their learning. It structured the content of its programming so that anyone along the broad spectrum of society can engage with the content. In Gilad’s words, “Anyone from soldiers to activists.” And the numbers show that this approach is working. Today, over 130,000 people have registered to learn for free online, and even more are engaging with learning materials over social media. “There is a huge desire to learn,” explained Gilad, “but until recently, there was no convenient way to do so.”
Madrasa is also working directly with over 50 organizations and businesses, particularly ones which interface with Arabic speakers, such as civil servants. These interactions are places where even minimal understanding of Arabic can have a big impact on public relations; for example, a government employee in the ministry of equality successfully helping a citizen deal with a bureaucratic issue in the latter’s mother tongue. Madrasa also offers lecture-based courses to organizations and communities that want to study Arabic in a way which challenges how Arabic has been taught in Israel up to now by going beyond basic utilitarian conversations or commands, in the context of the army. There is a team of 30-40 teachers across the country who bring the Madrasa approach to in-person learning. Now, over 5,000 students in school from 4th-8th grade have studied with Madrasa.
Madrasa’s story began in 2014, with 13 educational videos posted to YouTube. After nine years of trying to learn spoken Arabic at school and in the army, Gilad found he struggled to engage in casual conversations. So he took matters into his own hands, learning through a variety of mediums, and quickly realized that people around him wanted to do the same. As the videos grew more and more popular, Gilad and co-founder Daniel Dotan sensed the opportunity for something greater — and thus in 2017 Madrasa became an official nonprofit.
“Working with Shatil, in particular through the Lowering the Walls anti-racism program, has really helped us escalate into a real, meaningful enterprise,” continued Gilad. Through Lowering the Walls, Madrasa participated in 80 hours of learning on how to fight racism and promote multiculturalism, alongside representatives from a variety of communities – Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], secular people, leftists, rightists, Arabs, and Jews. “In addition to the practical tools and professional know-how, the partnerships we built through Shatil programming were crucial to our growth into a national program.”
Madrasa’s popularity takes place in the context of growing grassroots efforts to center Arabic in the public sphere, in response to the 2018 Nation-State law which canceled the status of Arabic as an official language of the State of Israel. Back when the law first passed, NIF, along with several grantees, organized a public Arabic lesson in the center of Tel Aviv. After the events of May 2021, a similar wave emerged, with groups such as Have You Seen the Horizon and Omdim Beyachad-Naqef Ma’an (Standing Together) setting up billboards across the country in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Madrasa sees itself as a leader of this larger movement. “We are providing more than just lessons,” Gilad said. “When students join, they become part of a greater community, a movement to revolutionize how people learn to communicate in our society.” As tensions continue to escalate and divides seem impossible to cross, learning how to communicate – or even just centering that effort – could be crucial to developing a shared society here in Israel.